I attempted this in a slightly different guise last year, however I broke a spoke on my wheels & couldn’t continue (don’t tour on carbon wheels!), I vowed to attempt it again the following year.
This year I managed to convince Becky, Rosy & Lewis to join me (after much beer & cider was consumed at the end of the LDN-PAR-LDN trip in May).
For Becky, Rosy and myself, this is pretty much a long ride home, as we all originate from Cornwall.
DAY 1 – London to Amesbury – 103 miles.
Setting off from Mile End Station at 7.30am (I was late, as per), seeing all the sights London has to offer, knowing that we were leaving this big city behind to ride until the road stops (literally) at the bottom of the UK was inherently satisfying.
The miles ticked over and eventually we found ourselves on some quieter roads, stopping for coffee & cakes in Bramely – Flat Whites haven’t quite reached this part of the world yet, however the cakes more than made up for this, on the recommendation of some fellow cyclists’ we ordered some Belgian Buns, which were amazing & huge.
Today’s ride had the least amount of elevation, we rolled through the countryside stopping for lunch in Andover, enjoying a leisurely lunch, knowing we only had just over 20 miles of the journey left for the day.
The weather had been kind so far, however after our lunch stop, the wind had picked up & the skies were looking ominously grey.
It wast long until the skies opened and we got thoroughly soaked, pushing on into the wind and rain with only about 10 miles to go, we arrived in Amesbury our first overnight stop in damp conditions.
A few beers, and a fantastic Thai restaurant soon made us forget the rain, while we hoped that our kit would be dry for tomorrow.
Day 2 – Amesbury to Exeter – 104 miles.
After devouring a huge breakfast, and leaving a little later than anticipated (mainly because I was always running late!), we continued heading south.
Similar distance lay ahead, but with much more elevation than the previous day, rolling through some beautiful countryside early on in the day, with hardly any traffic, the miles ticked over relatively effortlessly.
We stopped at a service station and stocked up on food for the onward journey, jaffa cakes a particular favourite.
Just before our designated lunch stop at Stoke Sub Hamdon, we enjoy a fantastic climb through Ham Hill country park, and we were rewarded with a beautiful view over the fields of Somerset. The view quickly made us forget about the climb up, we took a few photos and rolled down to hill for lunch at a nearby pub.
With over 50 miles still to go and a fair bit of climbing before we got to Exeter, we left Stoke Sub Hamdon pressing on into the headwind which would be with us for the whole trip.
Soon we started a long climb before pretty much the only ‘flat’ part of the day, followed by a descent into Exeter which we all got rather excited about, our anticipation peaked a bit too early, as the last 5 miles in to Exeter seemed to drag. Perhaps it was the fact we were coming back into civilisation, compared to the quiet country lanes we had been riding for most of the day.
Arriving at one of Exeter Uni’s halls of residence, we dropped our bikes off, got changed and headed to a pizza place to refuel and discuss tomorrows ride, which due to the weather was looking rather bleak to say the least. I think we all spent most of the night constantly checking various weather apps in hope that one of them would offer us something other than, torrential downpour and strong winds.
Day 3 – Exeter to St Austell – 77 miles.
4.45am – My alarm wakes me up, I snooze it, knowing I need the extra 10 minutes.
4.55am – This time, I have no choice but to get up.
We made the decision last night, to try and get ahead of the weather, this meant leaving at 5.30am, nearly an hour before sunrise.
As we left our rooms, we all had an equally unenthusiastic look on our faces, knowing what lay ahead throughout the day. 77 miles, over 7000ft of climbing, much of it steep and punchy Devon and Cornish climbs, and more than likely non-stop rain from 7am.
Climbing out of Exeter in the dark, the rain held off for about 2 hours, we made a quick pitstop for coffee at a Wetherspoons in Oakhampton (it was terrible), I looked on in envy, while many people were tucking into their full English breakfast, we pushed on into the rain and wind, knowing it wasn’t going to get any better.
The Granite way, which runs from Oakhampton to Lydford is a cycle path that follows the route of the old Southern Region rail line came as a welcome relief, relatively flat and sheltered away from the wind. The views are apparently spectacular, not that we could see them, due to the rain and low lying cloud cover.
One particular highlight was crossing Meldon Viaduct, until then, the route had been quite sheltered, as we hit the open expanse of the viaduct, we were all instantly hit with a massive crosswind, that nearly threatened to blow us off our bikes! There was only one thing for it, heads down, in the drops and push through as quickly as possible!
The headwind, climbing, rain and an early start was starting to take its toll. Over the course of the day I ate pretty much non-stop, 7 stroopwaffles and at least 5 Choco Rice Krispy bars to keep myself going.
Aiming to take a scenic route, once we hit Cornwall (although there was a distinct lack of a sprint sign), avoiding main roads, a lot of the route was on single track Cornish lanes, covered in mud and grass, barely wide enough for a car to pass through. Descending on these lanes in the dry is often hazardous at best. With the combination of non-stop rain and our bikes laden with panniers and saddlebags, descending became increasingly sketchy, constantly pulling hard on the brakes, this soon became as tiresome as the climbing.
50 miles in, and we hit the long climb up into Minions, the wind and rain had not relented, we stopped at a cafe (that was unsurprisingly empty), Lewis enjoyed a Cornish Cream Tea (jam first, then cream) and Becky refused to sit down, for fear of not being able to stand back up again.
Back out into the wind and rain (have you got the message that it didn’t stop raining), knowing we only had 27 miles until warmth, a cup of tea, and a shower, we pushed on, after a few sketchy descents and short, punchy climbs we were soon on the outskirts of Bodmin. We started to hit some familiar roads, knowing how close we were, I started pushing harder on the pedals, knowing all the climbing was behind us.
Rolling into my hometown of St Austell and to my parent’s house, a big wave of relief hit. We arrived at about 1pm, we were warmly greeted by my Mum and Dad, a quick rinse of the bikes to get some of the dirt off, kettle on, quick shower and lunch followed.
One of the benefits of leaving at 5.30am is, more time to spend in the pub!
Day 4 – St Austell to Land’s End – 56 miles (+8 miles back to Penzance)
After being well looked after by my parents, lycra all washed and cleaned, breakfast scoffed, we set off for the final leg of our journey.
Heavy legs, apart from Rosy who seemed to be riding into form! We ticked off the miles, quickly making it to Truro. Soon we were riding in some typical Cornish ‘mizzle’, a combination of mist and incredibly fine rain, nearly invisible to the naked eye.
The weather seemed to change with every every corner we turned, eventually the mizzle cleared and we were treated to some great views of the Cornish landscape.
A bit more climbing, and soon we began descending into Marizion, we could see St Michael’s Mount in the distance, we decided to stop for a quick break (I couldn’t resist a steak pasty) and a few photos.
Soon we were rolling again, heading into Rosy’s hometown of Penzance, Lewis took the sprint sign without any contest from hometown hero Rosy.
Rosy soon took to the front of our small peloton, in a similar fashion to a rider at Le Tour passing through their hometown, being cheered on by the vast crowds who came out to support us, or so we imagined.
We still had 8 miles to ride to Land’s End, Lewis wanted to the ride the beautiful but hilly coastal route, I quickly vetoed that idea as my knees had been causing me trouble all day (perhaps from pushing the pedals a bit too hard yesterday!). Climbing out of Penzance on the quite busy A30 wasn’t my favourite part of the journey, but that was soon forgotten once we were on the rolling final few miles to Land’s End.
We had been discussing the final Land’s End sprint throughout the trip (that’s what really matters right?), however, as we approached I’m not sure any of us had the energy for that kind of thing, we finished the journey crossing the line Team Sky style at Le Tour, the only thing missing was the Champagne – however we didn’t have to wait long!
Rosy’s family were there to congratulate us on the end of our journey, complete with Prosecco and a homemade sign! – it’s £10 to get your picture taken at the ‘official’ sign!
After toasting our ride, lots of pictures, and a couple glasses of Prosecco, sat at the end of the UK, or the start depending on how you look at it, looking out to sea, I think we were all incredibly proud and relieved to have finished. My mind started to drift to my next adventure, ride the Cornish Coast, LEJOG, or somewhere further afield…
However we still had the small matter of 8 miles back to Penzance, Rosy’s parents kindly offered to take our bags and panniers in the car, so we could ‘enjoy’ the ride back a bit more. For 4 days, we had been riding into a headwind, as we turned back to Penzance, we knew this would be a strong tailwind and started tapping out a brisk pace, unencumbered by our luggage and knowing that we would soon be back at the pub, enjoying some fine Cornish ale!
I bought my first race licence in July but I had yet to conjure up the courage to actually get out and race. So I pre-entered myself into CC London’s Hog on the Occasional Hill Cat 4 Race on the 4th of August and I told plenty of people so I couldn’t back out of it! With some pre-race training supplied by CC London beforehand I felt pretty happy going into the race, the nervous butterflies I had been having, flew away and the 12 of us set off.
I played it safe, sitting 3rd or 4th person back following the lead of the other riders who had raced before. First time up the hill I was second over the top, I had settled into a nice rhythm. I decided to take my turn at the front, just as I made my way they rung the bell to let us know the next lap we were going up the hill again… rookie mistake! I tried to ease up hoping someone would go round me, but they didn’t. I fell back through the ranks as we went up the hill and had to chase back on for the next couple of laps.
Once I caught up I stayed with the leading riders for the rest of the race. I didn’t quite see the move by the sprinters in time and my reaction just wasn’t quite quick enough to jump on the back of the sprint train so I ended up finishing in no mans land alone in 4th place picking up 6 points! I was so happy to finish and place in my first race!
I had caught the bug so I entered the Full Gas Women’s 3/4 cat race at Lea Valley Velopark. There was a huge field for a women’s race, I’m not sure of the exact number but I think there was about 30-40 riders.
It made for an interesting race, and it felt much different to Saturdays race. A lot of the women were riding as if they were the only person on the track, which made for some sketchy moments! I was much more familiar with this course having done the majority of the Tuesday Tens and I felt much more comfortable cornering and riding in the bunch this time around because of it.
40 minutes went by and the signs came out and we had 5 laps left, so I slowly started moving closer to the front. 4 laps to go, 3 laps to go, 2 laps to go, 1 lap to go… I was near the front only behind a couple of other riders having just dipped down the hill the speed was faster than it had been all evening. People were vying for prime position, and that’s when I crashed. The women in front of me clipped the wheel in front of her and fell off. I was too close to be able to brake or dodge it so I also ended up on the floor as well having gone over my handlebars.
I helped the other woman up who had definitely come off worse and took her and the bikes off the track just in time as the rest of the bunch were still racing and had just crossed the finish line.
Currently I only have a 50% completion rate when I race which isn’t great, but on the flip side I have managed to place in 50% of my races as well! The way I look at it is you win some, you lose some (or come 4th!) So I am looking forward to racing again and building up my knowledge of racing tactics, but first things first, I need to learn to pick a better wheel!
If you’ve been thinking about racing, just do it! It’s so much fun, and not as scary or dangerous as I’ve made out above! If you want a familiar introduction into racing then enter the LVCC Len Cooper Crit Race is on the 23rd of September. Being a club members only event it is a great way to experience your first race and get some experience under your belts with people you know and ride with normally!
If you have any questions or are interested in racing in the future, get in touch or chat to me on a club run.
Over the August bank holiday weekend, I took part in the Summer Points Series Crits hosted at Redbridge Cycling Centre. Yet, on Saturday morning, standing at the top of the Hog Hill circuit, under grey skies and with a sharp northerly wind, I began to wonder if perhaps they should have dropped “Summer” from the series title!
I had entered into the 4th cat race, on the second day of a three-event series running between the 18th and 27th of August. Each day had plenty of racing action, with two women’s races (4th cat and an E123), and four for the men (4th, 3rd, E12 and a Master’s). All races followed the same format, with around 45 minutes of riding including three prime laps. With points gained in the primes and final race standings contributing to riders’ overall position in the series.
The race itself was fast, but not beyond what I’m used to and I managed to pick up a handful of series points for being in the top three riders for each of the primes. However, when a two man break eventually broke off the front of the pack I simply didn’t have the legs to go with them. In the final bunch sprint, I came across the line in 8th place, picking up a further few series points, as well as a couple of BC points.
On Monday morning, the day of the final race of the series I had a look through the standings so far and was surprised to see myself in 4th place, even though I’d missed the first race all together. I decided my best tactic for the day was to take as many of the prime points and see how I was feeling when it came to the final sprint. My plan seemed to pay off, and by staying at the sharp end of the race I managed to pick up the maximum number of prime points. Coming down to a final sprint for the finish, an Islington CC rider managed to slip passed to take the win, but I was more than happy with second place. Especially considering that I had amassed enough points during the race to take the series title, as well the accompanying cash prize!
Overall, I had a great weekend of racing, and was really impressed with how well the series had been organised. It was good that a number of LVCC members had made an appearance, including myself, Lee Lavery, Paul Roberts and Tim Holmes (in his OCTAVE guise). Though the cold weather probably put off many spectators, (it was great to see Dave McCarthy back on his bike and making the trip to watch!), there was still a good atmosphere and many riders stayed on to watch the races later in the day. All going to plan, the organising team are planning on running the series again next year, and I for one will be entering!
A 600km East-West-East circuit around London, picking up a few Abbeys on the way.
Adam Vincent and I took part in our first 600 audax last weekend after having so much fun on our last 400*. The clue to this route is in the title** as it begins in Battle and the checkpoints are all connected to Abbeys, some of which are almost worth the cycle ride to visit. As with the 400 (see London Wales London) we were incredibly lucky with the weather – warm, but a nice breeze and some cloud cover. We set off at 6am with about 24 other riders and pegged it quickly up to Gravesend after the first information control (you must find a piece of information to put on your Brevet card), crossing the north Downs with a brute of a 17% climb. We arrived at Gravesend pier at 9.07, some 2 minutes after the ferry had left. We had to wait an hour, by which point most of the riders had arrived and we all squeezed onto the tiny boat to Tilbury.
From Tilbury the landscape is described as ‘bleakly charming if you relax into it’ in the organiser’s email, but it whizzed by quickly enough. After experiencing the joys of Basildon and Billericay we entered familiar territory around Hanningfield reservoir. At Coggeshall we reached the most north easterly point for the control, where tea and food were provided. We just managed to escape before the Sunday fete brought the whole town centre to a standstill. Beautiful single-track road through wheatfields took us west, now with a bit of a headwind.
Braintree was a bit ‘urban’, followed by the relentlessly straight B1256 (Roman?) – fast but mind-numbing. More familiar roads around Bishop’s Stortford, Green Tye and Widford, Ware and Hertford. St Alban’s Abbey was the next checkpoint at around 5pm, by which time we’d clocked up 250k. I ordered tea and cake, whilst Adam had a little nap on the pavement, much to the consternation of the patrons of Gail’s bakery. A brief information control at Godstow as the sun was setting and we hammered it as fast as we could into Oxford.
The sleep stop was hard to find, but it did have mattresses and blankets, making the luggage I had carried the whole way mostly redundant. I didn’t manage much actual sleep, but just lying down for a few hours after 337km was worthwhile. The next morning we got up at 4am, by which time most people had already left. A few had carried straight on, whilst others had slept for just a couple of hours. I felt tired as it was and don’t know how they stayed awake through the night.
The first day had been pretty good – I got my hydration and feeding right and felt comfortable on the bike, but the pace had been quite high (we were 3rd and 4th to get to Oxford). I felt quite rough on the Sunday morning – everything aching and not feeling right on the bike. Sunrise was welcome though and the temperature was perfect. Some long, grinding climbs through the north Wessex downs, but none too steep. Winchester was a full control with cooked breakfast and real coffee which sorted me out – my aches vanished and everything clicked into place.
We headed south and soon Portsmouth and the sea appeared. Info control at Titchfield and then heading west across the skirts of the South Downs – relentlessly lumpy and hot. This was probably the toughest bit of the ride and we slowed right down, below 25kph. Commercial control in Storrington (collect a receipt from any shop) and then the final push through to Battle. Good stretches of flat roads to pick up speed again, with a medium climb at the end. Back into Battle at 5.25pm on the Sunday.
Audaxes are a unique experience – there’s a whole community of volunteers that run them on a shoestring, providing controls, food and general camaraderie. Audaxing requires a particular, stoic mindset and the shared experience means you quickly bond with others out on the road. I was amazed that several of the riders had completed the Transcontinental Race – something I’ve always been in awe of – yet they weren’t any fitter or faster than us, just more willing to put up with the discomfort. It’s a state of mind – if you decide to enjoy it, you will do. On the other hand, we’ve only done audaxes in good weather and I’m not sure we’d be so sanguine if it rained the whole way. Hydration and feeding are key – it does vary from person to person, but I’m happy to share what works for me with anyone who’s interested. Also, if you’re wondering why I’m not in club colours, keeping cool is a challenge and this light jersey does that job best.
Next year’s ‘Chase the sun’ looks good. Hope to see you on an audax soon.
As my racing licence had autorenewed again this year, I thought I better make some use of it after only doing 1 race last year. Before the LVCC event, I had done 3 other road races with lacklustre results. Doing mainly time trials and club runs, I was still uncomfortable with the close proximity of the bunch on faster sections and corners. As a result, I often sat on the front which was great while my legs lasted but less so for the finish! I also have been suffering from cramps at the end when things get punchy, meaning I just roll to an undignified stop in agony rather than gloriously sprinting over the line. In summary, I didn’t have great expectations for the day.
On this attempt, I decided to be firm with myself and do absolutely nothing for the first half of the race – harder for me than it sounds. For whatever reason, I seemed to manage it better than usual. It was nearly quite blissful, zooming around at 25mph with a few short efforts on the rises and lightly spinning the cranks on the flat. My cunning plan was to give it a dig on the uphill crosswind turning on the second half of the 3rd 15 mile lap – approx. 35 miles in with 25 to go. Alas some others had the same idea so about 4 of us charged off together.
We opened up an initial gap but the main group was keen to get back in touch so after a couple of minutes they appeared on the twisty section chasing hard. When it became apparent they were going to catch, we sat up but I didn’t ease off completely. As we came to the top of the downhill section, I was sitting on the front so I tucked down and leaned a bit harder on the pedals to up the speed. Looking back, a gap of a few bike lengths had opened. Didn’t think too much of it as I freewheeled on at 30mph+. Few more pedal strokes and looked back again and the gap was growing on out. So it continued down the gradient until there was maybe a gap of 5 seconds (sounds small but quite big when going fast!). I sort of dangled there for a moment, not knowing what to do as no-one seemed interested in coming across. Then I thought why not give it a go solo. I knew I was pretty fast on the flat with my head down and they seemed to be faffing a bit. So off I went! Still on the gentle downhill, I got into TT mode, tucking everything possible in and subtly pushed a big gear. And so it continued for the next hour…
I didn’t really know what would happen. I was soon into a twistier rolling section where I quickly lost sight of the group. The next I knew the motorcycle outrider came past and said I had a gap of 50 seconds! I couldn’t really believe it, had they crashed or something? Did I mishear him? Could he count? Anyway, I eased up a bit as I knew there was a long way to go, but he kept coming back with the gap being maintained or sneaking up. I thought great but they must be messing around, saving themselves for a charge on the last lap. Also, there was a long headwind drag to come where I knew I would lose time to a big group.
By this point I’d just come past the start finish to start the last 15 miles. I went to kick on over the top but my left leg completely cramped up. This had been the blight of all my previous road races. I instantly thought I’m going to have to quit, what’s the point now? My gap will be gone and legs shot. I desperately stood up on the pedals and freewheeled for about 30s as I tried to stretch everything out. Sitting back down, I tentatively started to pedal again. Hmm, seems to be okayish, bit twingy but things are going round and I’m going forward. Alas going to have to keep going! Settling down again, I waited for the bad news from the outrider.
Sure enough the gap was down to about 40 seconds – could be worse! However, it was now into the long headwind section and then the uphill crosswind where I had originally attacked. Looking back at Strava shows I managed to hold the gap pretty consistent along here and then when I got back on the rolling downhill, I opened it up again to nearly 1 minute. Phew, only a few miles left.
By the end I was gasping quite literally: only had a single 600ml bottle for the whole race and it was hitting 28/29°C by the end of the 2.5 hours. I also had only eaten 2 gels and nothing after the first half. The finish line couldn’t come quick enough! Alas the advertised race length of 60 miles came and went on my computer screen and I was still nowhere near; my mental countdown to the end in tenth-of-a-mile intervals was a mockery. Where on earth was it? Alas 2.46 miles, or another 6.5 minutes of misery, down the road I would discover.
In the end, I gritted my teeth and pushed up the final 2 minute incline to the finish. This felt like an eternity, but once the line was in sight, and more importantly no-one behind was, I eased over the line to win. With the surge and sprint at the end for everyone else, the gap to the next rider ended up around 40 seconds.
Immediate relief! A result for the first time this year, and where better?!
Thank you again to the club and all the clubmates who were involved in putting on the day and shouted encouragement from every corner. This really made all the difference and kept me focussed in trying not to disappoint.
The ride started under a cloudy sky and, for me at least, with quite a cloudy head from waking up too early after a short night following a very last-minute packing. Meeting at Mile End at 7:00am our jolly group of 10 started to cycle in line trying to avoid being cut off by traffic, and feeling slightly out of place with all our bags, gears, and head to toe lycra looks amongst the regular commuters.
I was at the back of the group when the crash happened. All I saw was Adam sat on the pavement holding his hand and a man at least 10 meters away from him, lying down on his back, his head (with no helmet!) bleeding. We all jumped out of our bikes: some started to marshal traffic, Lee attended to Adam, and Jemma started to take care of the man lying there. The wait for the ambulance seemed endless considering we were just behind the Royal London Hospital but they finally arrived and took over – they brought the injured riders to safety and we took care of the bikes. Once it was over, we looked at each other and we agreed it was time to get on to Paris!
Cycling toward South London, our little group got told to “get proper jobs” as we soon left the big roads for some green urban paths which (little did we know) were the first of many non-road-bike-friendly tracks we would encounter until Paris. Stopping for lunch at a pub on the usual route to Brighton, Nestor and Jemma ate a disappointing micro bruschetta, I lowered my saddle praying my old commuter bike (or myself) would not die before arriving to Paris, and Alex made sure Adam was ok, while we all wondered how long we should wait until throwing some finger jokes…
The rest of the ride was uneventful – pretty much your usual slightly wet road down to the coast with some foresty lanes, slippery road works, and a pretty ugly arrival to Newhaven made better by a fueling stop at McDonald/ KYC/ Lidl, accompanied by some Froome magic on the Giro. By the time we got on the boat the sun was out and the spirits were high!
After a chat with a very relaxed custom officer who luckily did not find the many firearms we were trying to introduce to France, we jumped on the boat for a four-hour chat about fingers, cycling and LVCC. Once in France, we said goodbye to the drunk rugby players that pretended to try cycling and started to look for our hotel. Passing through quiet Dieppe, climbing up a dark motorway, turning on an Intermarché parking and passing a llama, we finally found our Michelin-star F1 hotel for a good shower in flip flops and a short night sleep – ready for more adventures!
Day 2 (James)
With Lee and Lewis pressing for a super early start and a race paced chain gang to Paris (nothing to do with the Champions League final), we compromised and set out from our luxury accommodation at 7:30 after a breakfast of whatever we managed to fill our bags with from Lidl the evening before. Our day’s plan was the 130 miles to Paris, using a mixture of Avenue Verte and a lovely route through some little villages. The sun made an early appearance and quickly reached about 28 degrees, which made the quite lumpy route fairly tough going. Frequent water stops were a must, alongside a very leisurely lunch at a pizzeria.
On we pootled through the french countryside and rolling hills towards Paris. It was hard to get used to the fact a car horn and shout from a window was encouragement, not abuse! The route wasn’t strictly speaking entirely road… I had cause to feel smug with my choice of 43mm tyres. At around 110 miles, Jemma and I decided to split off to find some dinner and take the run into Paris a little slower…finding vegetarian food in France late at night is a challenge! The ride into Paris was beautiful, through a big park with the skyline slowly appearing through the trees, before a horrifying descent down some cobbles that had some of the group convinced that Caroline’s bike was going to vibrate to pieces.
The advance party managed to make it to the Eiffel Tower just before the sun disappeared, before heading back to the hotel to gorge on well earned takeaway food. Jemma and I decided to leave the sightseeing for the morning, head to the hotel and take a more leisurely route home the next day.
Day 3 (Jemma)
After getting into Paris too late to see the Eiffel Tower, James and I decided to go in the morning before catching a train to Rouen with the intent of then cycling half the distance to the ferry port where we would meet the rest of the group. Tensions did flare slightly when the train broke down with no indication of when it would start again, thankfully within the hour they were moving. However, in our eagerness to get out cycling in the beautiful weather we hopped out a stop too early adding an extra 15 miles onto our journey.
Not thinking it would be an issue we set off in the sunshine and had a lovely trundle up river paths, through beautiful fields and past many farms. Some fantastic 2UP time trialling down a particular stretch of road gave some welcome top 10 strava cups. A note has been made to go back without luggage to get the QOMs.
As the light started to fade, lights went on and cycling continued until the route went a little awry and we ended up in the middle of a countryside housing estate; bikes had to be pushed over a bridge over a stream which saw the entrance into a tree covered track. My 25s weren’t made for what was effectively a fire road and I suspected that James did it on purpose to get use out of his new ‘all purpose bike’ and 43mm tyres. After pushing the bikes through 1km of tree roots, rocks and mud we came out the other side and had an enjoyable ride in fading light into Dieppe where we met up with the others for some port-side drinks before boarding the ferry.
The rest of the group took a much more direct route out of Paris, closed roads due to a charity run aided their exit, the quiet rolling French main roads and fantastic weather helped the group roll along the 112mile trip at an average of 16mph. There were few shaky moments, mainly trying to find somewhere to eat (that wasn’t McDonalds) in the French countryside – We ended up at the Golden Arches regardless.
Arriving into Dieppe in the early evening – Lee took the infamous Dieppe sprint sign – the first port of call was a few pints in the nearest bar, although for Nestor he had to cool down in the fountain!
Day 4 – (Jemma)
The sleep on the ferry couldn’t really be called a sleep, not sure that anyone got more than 2 hours and the McDonald’s breakfast barely made the cycle ahead palatable at 5am in the morning. James and I decided to splinter from the group and take a different route home via Brighton. The juxtaposition of an on-going rave in the arches against the early morning nudist swimmers was interesting (that would have been me a few years back). On leaving Brighton up the slow drag onto the national cycle route we got about 5 miles north before erm, my saddle issues had gotten so bad that the 50 mile ride back to London was going to be near on impossible so we freewheeled back to the station and got the train. A new saddle was promptly purchased the following week. The rest of the group went directly back to London and somehow managed to eat their own body weights in McDonald’s, before being caught in the only rain we saw all weekend!
**as an aside, Lee failed in his bet that I would be the first to fall off. I (Jemma) did however take the record for how many times someone can fall off in a four day stretch.
Lee gets his own special mention for his ride back to London, but you will have to ask him why…
Despite being off to a rather traumatic start (and we wish Adam all the best in his continued recovery), it was a great trip. With ferry, hotels and food amounting to around £100 each for a 4 day adventure, this is definitely one to do again!
I honestly can’t remember why I decided to do a 12hr TT this season,
but I think in part it was a result of spending too much time with Gary Boyd who, for reasons that I will never understand, loves riding 12 and 24hr TTs. He left it until a couple of weeks before the event to mention that he was a DNF in the same race last year after falling asleep on his bike.
2 hrs – at least it’s stopped raining. I averaged 38kph for the the last lap, imagine if I can maintain that for the whole 12hrs!
In my preparation I had looked at pretty much every table of predicted times online, stalked riders on Strava and created spreadsheets within spreadsheets. In the end, I had three average speeds written on a bit of tape stuck to my bars. One was enough to beat the club record (34kph), one was a realistic target (35.5kph) and one was rather optimistic (37kph)
3 hrs – I definitely can’t maintain that for 12hrs
At this stage I was averaging higher than my optimistic target and had already had to stop for my first of 5 comfort breaks. It’s depressing how quickly your average speed drops when you turn off auto pause. I set my computer(s) to show me stats for each 20 mile lap and only once in the 12hrs did I look at my overall average. It really helped to break up the seemingly insurmountable task, and allowed me to start a fresh after a bad lap.
4 hrs – ok, lets accept that I went out a bit too hard, but to look on the bright side, I still have 8hrs to settle into a more sustainable pace!
My brother had kindly agreed to support me and had ridden down to arrive by my first stop at around 4hrs. I drove down the night before and parked by the side of the course. I stopped once around 100 miles in, and after that, he ‘handed up’ a bottle as I went past. From around 8 hours onwards my solid food had run out and he started taping chews or bars to the bottle.
6 hrs – this is officially the longest ride I have done; that will show people who compare themselves to me on Strava. That reminds me, must think of a hilarious name for this ride.
I never did think of a good name, despite having plenty of time. Time generally passed pretty quickly and it was a massive boost to get past half way and know that you are closer to the end than the start. It’s an out and back course so there was a pretty decent headwind for half the lap. Generally I was averaging over 40kph on the way out and trying to keep the speed up as best as possible on the way back.
8 hrs – never again, must remember this feeling when I think about entering another 12hr.
This was probably my low point and also the windiest that it got during the day. Some more friends had arrived and their cheers really helped. I had also left a sharpie with my supplies so they could write messages on the bottles that were being handed to me. At this stage we were getting quite good at the hand ups and I was taking bottles from my brother at 36kph as he sprinted along beside me. He may be poached by another rider for next year.
10 hrs – Thank f**k we are onto the finishing circuit.
The course is pretty simple compared to most 12’s. It’s a stretch of dual carriageway with three roundabouts and after around 10 laps of the main circuit you start turning at the middle roundabout. This helps as the headwind section is shorter, but it also misses out the hilly and extremely bumpy section at one end of the course. The road surface is terrible and you have to pick your line carefully, especially if you are running a 20mm from tyre on trispoke. The section approaching the bottom roundabout is referred to as the ‘Chawton Roubaix’ and has seen a fair few broken bars and pads in it’s time.
11 hrs 15 mins – Woo Hoo, broken the club record! Now to push on and put it on the shelf… or I could just stop now.
The hardest thing I found about a 12hr is that it’s a sustainable effort, but you are constantly bugged by the knowledge that easing off slightly wouldn’t make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. Motivation is a big factor. Little things can be a big boost, like miss reading the time and realising you have an hour less than you thought, although it can also go the other way.
12 hrs – I better reach the time keeper soon as I need another piss!
A bit like the hour record, you have to carry on after the 12hrs is up until you pass the next timekeeper on the road. I had been doing plenty of calculations and worked out that I should finish pretty close to my support, but if not, I would have to carry on another 2 or 3 miles until the next timekeeper. This would have left me with an additional 7 mile ride into the headwind which was not going to happen! I eased up slightly to make sure and then skidded to a halt to answer nature’s call.
I rode the 3 miles back to the van, and had a wee sit down. Then it was off to the HQ to sign out. Can you believe we didn’t even get a free cup of tea!
Having had a bit of time to reflect on my ride and look at the data, I’m not sure I would have changed things an awful lot (apart from not doing it in the first place). I was pretty much spot on with my ‘realistic’ predicted distance of 265 miles, although it would have been better to start out slower and maintain the same pace throughout. I would have gone a few extra miles if I had not had to stop so many times and I think I could have ridden without a pit stop 4hrs in. But all in all, I’m very happy, especially on my first attempt.
A big thanks to the Lynn and Rupert for hosting, helping and cheering me. Richard and Ger for their boundless enthusiasm and most importantly my brother David for his amazing support and top notch handing up.
For those interested, here are the stats –
Distance – 428 km / 265.9 miles Average – 35.67 kph / 22.16 mph NP – 199W AV HR – 143 bpm
TSS – 612
IF – 0.71 Cadence – 89 Moving Time – 11:52:34 Stopped – 7:26 Climbing – 2109m Calories – 8,627
Adam Vincent and I set off with 120 riders from Chalfont st Peter at 6am. It was a cold but beautiful start, rolling along country lanes – a few gentle climbs. There was a light tailwind and we did about 30kph till we hit the first control point at Woodstock social club. True audax style there was a full cooked breakfast awaiting. We stopped for 15 minutes before pushing on to the Cotswolds. The route was like a tour of the quaintsvilles – chocolate box villages one after another. slightly stiffer climbs until Tewkesbury free control – we had to collect a timed receipt from any shop. Greggs did the job for us with a quick cheese and bacon croissant. Next up was an info control – take note of the initials on a war memorial. Then we hit Yat’s rock – an absolutely brutal climb – I was wishing for a granny gear – inching my way up what seemed like an endless climb. Up until then I’d been feeling pretty comfortable but by now it was about 25 degrees and the climb really took it out of me.
We limped into the Tutshill control, with 215km done at about 2pm. Lunch was laid on and that sorted us out. I fixed a slow puncture and we set off again, crossing the Severn bridge around 3pm. The last control before the finish at Lambourn was 100k away and this was the toughest section – lumpy with some nice flat sections, but everything was aching by then. About halfway I had a second puncture, then a third. Only then did I realise my rim tape had slipped exposing the spoke holes which were causing the punctures. Useless lightweight rim tape – fortunately a passing rider had some electrical tape to cover the holes and I could sort it but that cost us an hour. All day it had been flawless weather and as the sun was dropping the light was stunningly beautiful. The route is an old audax route and was almost entirely backroads. We were struggling by now but ground on to Lambourn where another much needed meal was served. We set off on the final 90km at 9pm in the dark with big lights and batteries. The temperature had dropped dramatically, but there was barely any wind and a beautiful clear sky. A couple of stiff climbs then we descended into the Thames Valley and tapped out 30km in an hour up to a small climb back into Chalfont. We were stamped in at 12.59 am – about 1 hour after our target time but I put that down to punctures.
Audaxers are insistent that it’s not a race – there’s a maximum time of 27 hours but mainly it’s about getting round and sharing the experience. Having said that we were somewhere in the top 30-40 out of 120. The fastest was about 14 hours – 5 hours faster than us. The network of volunteers who manned the controls and served food – all included in the 20 quid fee – really put sportives to shame and gave it a great sense of community.
So next up is a 600km audax – we’ll probably stop in the middle of that one but it’s totally achievable.
Not just a road going club, some of our members enjoy getting extra dirty…
Billed as the UK’s foremost gravel race, the Dirty Reiver is designed to be along the same lines as a proper American gravel grinder. It wriggles through Kielder National Park and along the Scottish Border, taking in the delights of the Reiver Trail and Kielder Water. It promised beautiful scenery, 200km of gravel and forestry trail, nearly 4000m of climbing and a fun day out. I set out knowing that if I couldn’t hack it, there was an option to end the punishment at 130km, and punishment it certainly was. My bike for the event was a Mason Bokeh, running Hunt wheels (a popular choice) and 43mm tubeless Panaracer Gravelking SK (also popular). The suggestion was to run tubeless, and that proved to be sound advice.
I set out from Kielder Castle at 7:30am, after copious safety messages asking you to check you had your survival blanket and comprehensive first aid kit, and a reminder that this is “not a race”. It started with an untimed 1km stretch of road to take you to the entrance of the forest, and then it started; if you weren’t sure what you’d let yourself in for, you had a rude awakening. The first 20km consisted of relatively hard packed gravel and about 10-15 punchy climbs followed by descents. At this point you are surrounded by about 1000 other riders, so you can all share in the pain together. From that point, it was fairly smooth going for 30km, with a few longer 3km climbs, but not much else. A quick stop at the well stocked feed station at 50km was all that was needed.
The stop served to split up any groups, and suddenly you find yourself riding on your own, growing increasingly aware that you probably over-cooked it on the first section. The temperature rose, the terrain turned very rough and lumpy and the hills just kept on coming. About 80km in the road surface decided to turn to rocks and downhill. What felt like an eternity of terrifying descending later, I reached the bottom and passed through a cheekily placed banner from sponsor Lauf, who make suspension forks for gravel bikes. I was dying and deeply unhappy by this point, totally at the end of my energy and begging for it to all stop. I told myself that at the 100km feed stop, I could have a big long well deserved rest, and I didn’t need to worry about time because I could bail at 130km. I scraped myself there and collapsed for 45 minutes, eating everything from my drop bag that had been transported there.
I left the 2nd stop and it turned into the first really big climb, a descent where I was nearly vibrated off the bars and finally a 10km long drag over rubble and rocks where 3-5kph felt optimistic. Before long, I reached the 130km turning, and I’d already decided I just wasn’t having fun anymore, it was a ridiculous joke and it was time to stop. But it was only 1:30. And there was a man in a chicken costume ringing a bell. I listened to the chicken man and decided to continue. I regretted the decision almost immediately as a 15km unshaded climb in the midday heat suddenly appeared. As I was climbing I could see my tent in the distance, taunting me. I reached the final feed station at 150km, where the nice people were cooking cheesy potatoes on an open fire stove. That, combined with the obscene amount of flapjack and haribo on offer, lifted my spirits sufficiently.
I left the final stop and straight onto the final awful climb. People were walking, but I knew if I walked, I wouldn’t get back on. At the top, you are greeted with an amazing view of Kielder Water, with accompanying breeze and the most beautifully smooth fine point gravel. 25km to go and all you have to do is ride on this lovely surface round this lake. Lakes are flat, so the trail will also be flat. The trail was not flat. With 10km to go, my left leg stopped wanting to be a leg and cramped up so badly I had to lie down for a few minutes. Worried that it would prove terminal, I decided to nurse it home quite gently. 10km has never seemed very far in the past, but there was a glorious, albeit brief, section along a real piece of road, which definitely helped. A short sharp climb back to the castle and I was greeted with a “well done for taking part” medal and a beer, because what could be bad about rehydrating with beer.
All in all a truly horrific, brutal and punishing day of riding. My mood moved from despair on the climbs, to denial on the descents, to more despair on the bits that were meant to be flat. The surface went from passable to downright terrifying. The views were amazing (probably) and the weather was perfect (too hot).
Would I do it again?
Not a chance.
I could probably do it faster next time.
It can’t have been that bad?
If you are contemplating doing it next year, don’t. Only do.
In a break from the usual blog posts updating everyone on what’s been happening at the club, I’ve written this one all about how I got into cycling the first time around. This is quite possibly of no interest to anyone in the world apart from me, but please indulge me: I’ve been housebound for a month and will potentially be off the bike for three months in all due to a nasty muscle injury, so I needed something to do. I joined Lea Valley CC back at the end of 2008, but this was actually my second coming as a cyclist. The original story goes back to the old days when cycling had practically no public profile whatsoever.
When I was growing up I don’t remember ever seeing cycle racing in the newspapers or on the TV. Nobody ever talked about it at school. I couldn’t have named a single cyclist, not even Eddy Merkcx. My hometown (Harlow) actually had a velodrome that people travelled from far away to race on – I didn’t even know it existed. The only races I had heard of were the Tour de France and the Milk Race and the only thing I knew about them were the names. In my final years at primary school Robert Millar won mountain stages of the Tour de France and took the King of the Mountains jersey. I knew nothing about this. I didn’t even know they rode up mountains. Then in 1986 Greg Lemond became the first English-speaker to win the Tour. Again, not even remotely on my radar. The following year I became dimly aware that Stephen Roche became the first Irish winner, but I didn’t see any of it – I didn’t even know you could watch it on Channel 4. My world was all about football and music.
So how did I enter the world of cycle racing? I suppose the first step was when I was about 10 years old and accompanied my dad round to the house of one of his friend’s where his teenage daughter had a ‘racing bike’ for sale second hand. The agreed price was a fiver. The wheels were far too big for me at that time, so I stuck to my BMX and the bike stayed rusting in the shed for several years as a very cheap investment for the future.
I woke up on my 13th birthday to the surprise discovery that the rusting bike had been pressed into action (my dad had paid for it to be serviced) and I was given a work permit so that I could go and get a paper round. Imagine my joy. For the next three years I got up at 6am seven days a week, initially earning the princely sum of £4.50 a week. The bike itself was not fantastic: plastic grips on the handlebars, three Sturmey Archer hub gears, nothing that could be described as gleaming. When I rode it to school my friends asked me why I had stolen a postman’s bike.
I started tentatively heading out on rides of up to ten miles in the countryside to the east of where I lived in Old Harlow: Matching Tye and Green, The Lavers, no further than that. I would have been wearing jeans and travelling without a pump, or a spanner, or tyre levers or any idea what to do if something went wrong (and obviously no mobile phone to call for help in those days).
Mercifully, for my 14th birthday I got a new bike. It was still cheap and heavy, but definitely an upgrade. Gone were the plastic grips on the handlebars: instead they were covered in black foam padding. It had these weird dual brake lever things (I don’t know the correct term for them, but in addition to the usual levers there were horizontal ones coming out of the sides of the hoods which you could pull up when you were riding with your hands on the tops of the handlebars – not actually very effective). Excitingly, the bike came with a rear derailleur which meant I now had a staggering FIVE speeds to choose from.
I started riding further afield, going twenty or thirty miles at a time. Without any technology, the exact distance of each ride was difficult to calculate: I had to work out an approximation by getting a piece of paper and pivoting it on a pencil as I followed every twist and turn of the roads on the OS Map laid out on my desk.
As luck would have it, it turned out that my best mate at school also liked cycling. He was used to riding further than me as his dad took him touring. His bike was also considerably better than mine – it was lighter, it had a front mech (so a mindblowing TEN speeds), it had quick release wheels and his brake hoods weren’t made of metal so he could actually ride with his hands on them. One day early in 1988 he came to school in a mood after a row at home and declared that he was going to run away from home and live in youth hostels. This wasn’t a terribly good idea, but over the course of the day I managed to convince him to radically change this plan into me and him going on a youth-hostelling and cycling holiday in the summer. I was only 14 (turning 15 that summer) so I wasn’t sure if my parents would agree to this. However, it wasn’t out of the question: they had recently let me travel down to London on my own to watch Manchester United away games (and this at a time when football matches were a rather more dangerous affair than nowadays) so there was a chance. Sure enough, they agreed.
With the exception of a trip to Scotland when I was just 6, I had never had any reason to head further north than Milton Keynes. My first taste of The North had come in 1987 when we stayed in Sheffield and visited The Peak District. I thought it was amazing (The Peak District, not Sheffield) and told my mate that we should try to get there by bike. So, armed with a youth hostel handbook, we set off to Harlow Library to spread open a load of OS Maps and try to work out how we could do it. We came up with a route of Harlow – Cambridge – King’s Lynn – Thurlby (a tiny place in The Fens in Lincolnshire) – Lincoln – Edale (at the foot of Kinder Scout and the start of The Pennine Way). We had wanted to limit it to about 40-45 miles per day, but the final day was going to be 65 miles – much further than I had ever ridden before. It was impossible to borrow the maps (and we would have needed about ten of them anyway to cover the whole trip) so all we could do was write down directions on scraps of paper that we would then take with us. The unfortunate knock on effect of this was that we felt we had to stick to A roads and B roads the whole way as at least these were easy enough to identify.
As the next few months passed, I got fitter, rode further, saved up money from my paper round and got more and more excited at the prospect of a week of freedom and independence, leaving behind Essex and ending up in the heather-clad moors, only for my mate to break his ankle while rollerskating just days before we were supposed to set off. We hastily rearranged it from July to the October half term and hoped my mate would be physically capable of riding by then – fortunately he was.
The first few days were fairly straightforward, albeit a bit wet and cold and largely on main roads through boring Fenland. The final day was brutal, though. First of all, we shared our dormitory in Lincoln with The Incredible Snoring Man who ensured I got very little sleep. We had to contend with a headwind for the entire day, most of which was spent plodding past power stations and coal mines in Nottinghamshire. Then in Derbyshire we hit a small town called Eckington where the road went up and up and up. Coming from Essex it was something of a shock to find that a road could climb for three miles. We got later and later and it got darker and darker and we felt emptier and emptier. The last fifteen miles were in total darkness and when we finally made our way up the Pennine track to the hostel in Edale they told us we were too late for dinner and there was nothing to eat. Not quite the glorious return to the Peak District I had been dreaming of.
In the meantime, in early September 1988 one of the customers on my paper round started getting Cycling Weekly…er…weekly. It caught my eye so I bought a copy myself to investigate. It was a window into a secret world. Little of it made sense to me. What was a time trial and how was it different to a road race? What were all these categories and codes? What did ‘st’ in the results mean? What was the BBAR? What on earth was a ‘Raleigh-Banana’? The results page listed things that looked like times and speeds and yet they couldn’t possibly be real. As if somebody could ride 100 miles in 3 hours 43 minutes! As if someone could ride for 12 hours (12 hours!) at nearly 25mph! This was just crazy talk. There was no internet then and I didn’t know anybody in the world who could answer these burning questions for me, so I penned a letter and sent it off to the magazine. The months came and went with no response, so I was left to try to puzzle it all out for myself.
Anyway, I was hooked, despite not really understanding it. Nowadays, with footage of every race on Eurosport or ITV and instant updates available on the internet, any race reports in magazines are cursory affairs because the writers know that practically all their readers already know what happened. But back then this was the only way you could find out anything other than the biggest international races. The reports were compelling reading with two or three pages taking you through the story of how the latest Star Trophy race unfolded. I was fascinated by tales of Ben Luckwell charging up The Tumble in Wales leaving everyone in his wake and Paul Curran doing the same up Winnats Pass a week later, even though I couldn’t see it. They also printed the world rankings and I saw that an Irishman, Sean Kelly, was number one. “Ah, he must be the guy who won the Tour de France last year,” I thought (wrongly).
I hadn’t picked the best time of year to suddenly get into cycling as the season was practically over. In those days the Vuelta was in the spring and the world championships were in August so there wasn’t an awful lot left. Once again, I had failed to watch any of the Tour earlier that year, but I was at least aware of it because there had been a big controversy about the winner, Pedro Delgado, testing positive for a banned substance that wasn’t quite banned after all (it’s a complicated story). But I did manage to get one taste of cycling on TV before the winter hit: some recorded highlights of the Nissan Classic stage race in Ireland which (I think) was shown on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon in October. The only thing I can recall about it now, nearly 30 years later, is a solo breakaway by a British pro called Darryl Webster who did 100 miles on his own and at one stage got 20 minutes clear.
It hadn’t really crossed my mind that I could race myself, it was just something I liked reading about. I had been saving up my money for months to finally get myself a more appropriate bike, but my focus was very much on touring. Finally I had enough money to get myself a Peugeot Azur from Chris Grange’s cycle shop in Bishops Stortford. My dream machine with 12 speeds, quick release wheels, brake hoods you could ride with your hands on – I had arrived. It also had the all-important carrier for my panniers, mudguards, nice wide tyres and wide gear ratios to deal with climbing hills while carrying heavy loads. Little did I realise this would rapidly turn out to be absolutely the wrong purchase.
Christmas came and I got a Cateye Vectra computer with a wire that threaded down to a sensor on the fork. This was entering the space age alright: now I would know exactly how far and how fast I had ridden. I also picked up a Systeme-U top as worn by my new favourite, the bespectacled and ponytailed Laurent Fignon.
Then, out of the blue in the middle of January, a man called Ken phoned our house asking to speak to me. “Hello, is that Jamie? I saw your letter in the comic and thought I’d get in touch, not many Fakes in the phone book” he said. He might as well have been speaking Martian, I couldn’t work out what was going on. It turned out he was talking about Cycling Weekly – this was on a Thursday evening and my copy wouldn’t be delivered until the following morning (by me!), but Ken already had his and bewilderingly, four months after I had sent it, my letter featured prominently (under the headline ‘Jamie, 15, wants to know all about cycling’) along with explanations to answer all of the questions I had asked. Although Cycling Weekly had pointed me in the direction of Harlow CC, Ken was from Bishops Stortford CC and was trying to ‘poach’ me. I explained that we would be moving house in just a few months, but he still said it was worth joining and so I became a member a week later.
A man called Peter (who also lived in Old Harlow) kindly drove me up to their social evenings every week and I started going on the club runs and doing 45-60 mile rides every Sunday (at this point still wearing tracksuit and trainers and riding with panniers). Sensibly, they put me in the slowest of their three groups (they had quite a large racing contingent at the time), under the supervision of a man called Ian and his daughter Wendy, going at a rather gentle 14-15mph.
I had now become completely obsessed by cycling and was pouring all my money into it to try to get ready to try racing for myself – my next purchases were my first ever pair of lycra cycling shorts (with actual leather chamois) and my first ever pair of cycling shoes (old school black ones with laces) which had to go into toe clips and straps – not easy for a quick escape in an emergency.
In the Easter holiday I went on another youth hostelling and cycling holiday with my mate, this time heading south to recce the area my family would shortly be moving to. We went from Harlow to Holmbury St Mary in the Surrey Hills (which involved getting hopelessly lost looking for the tube in Stepney, taking the District Line right through the centre of town out to Richmond, and nearly coming a cropper descending the ridiculously steep White Down fully laden), then down to Arundel in the pouring rain, then across to Alfriston (wasting two hours getting repeatedly lost in Brighton and setting a new max speed of 45mph), over the South Downs to Eastbourne, up through The Weald to Crockham Hill, then home through the sprawl of London with a trip on the Woolwich Ferry.
On that final day we took a detour to Eastway, the cycle circuit near Leyton that was the centre of crit racing in the area. It’s sadly gone now, bulldozed to make way for the Olympic Velodrome. I had already ridden down there from Harlow in to see the ‘March Hare’ race meeting where lots of my club mates raced and there was a chance to see the domestic pros in action (in those days there was no ‘elite’ category and pro racing was completely separate from the top amateurs). Now I got to ride it for myself: I raced my mate round for a couple of laps and average 19.3mph – surely that would be good enough for the real thing?
I was to find out in the middle of April. I entered a crit organised by Crest on the Saturday and another organised by Lea Valley RC (as the club was then known) on the Sunday. I did my best to make my touring bike appropriate for races: the mudguards and carrier came off, but the tyres were still 28mm wide (at a time when most racers had just 19mm) and I had a pretty useless selection of gears. The restrictions on what gears under-16s could use in races coupled with the wide spread of gears that I had (for touring) meant I was left with just two cogs I could use in my races, an 18 and a 21. In those days, of course, the levers were were on the down tube (and weren’t even indexed) so I had a vested interest in avoiding changing gear if at all possible.
My most vivid recollection from the day of my first race is the smell of embrocation in the changing rooms – even today, when I get a whiff of that I am transported back to Eastway 1989. To say I struggled would be putting it mildly – I lost contact with the bunch of 15-year-olds on the climb on the first lap and spent pretty much the whole race puffing around on my own in the red. The younger riders (13/14) had been set off a minute ahead of us, so when they came round I tried to stay with them instead, but got dropped again. I didn’t actually come last (there were a few other stragglers I picked off), but I spent precious little time actually in a group and got lapped twice by the winner (in a race that was only 12 laps long). Ken (who had driven me down there) had to shout out to me to stop when I crossed the line shortly after the leading group – I thought I still had to do my final two laps.
Although it had been a baptism of fire, I was filled with enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to try it again. I got home bursting to tell my family all about it, only to find the Hillsborough disaster was unfolding live on TV. The shocking scenes there dominated my thoughts for the rest of the day, but the next morning after my paper round I had to head straight back down to Eastway to race again. This time I stayed with the bunch for the whole of the first lap but then made the rooky error of pedalling around the tight left hand bend at the end of the finishing straight. My pedal hit the ground, my bike bucked up in the air and I landed spreadeagled over the top tube with my feet still strapped into the pedals. I just about managed to stay upright, but soon realised my back wheel was so buckled that I had to abandon.
Over the next two months I crammed in as many crits at Eastway as I could (instead of revising for the GCSEs I was taking). I got better at sticking with the guys who were younger than me, but never got close to troubling the guys in the leading group. To be fair, one guy who kept winning my races was a youngster by the name of Roger Hammond – within a few years he was Junior World Cyclocross Champion and then later, as a pro, became National Road Champion and was something of a cobbled classics specialist with a 2nd in Gent-Wevelgem and 3rd in Paris-Roubaix, so it’s no wonder I was struggling.
My one moment of (relative) glory was when they had the regional championships. The BCF regions in those days were different to the BC regions now: Bishops Stortford was in the North London region. The top three riders in our regional crit would be selected to race in the national championship and, to my joy, there were only six of us in the race. Two strong guys dropped the rest of us early on. My bunch of four stayed together for the rest of the race and to my huge excitement I found myself taking part in a genuine sprint finish (with a place in the Nationals at stake for the winner) – I was 3rd out of the 4, so 5th out of 6 overall – not terribly impressive, but this was enough to get my name in the results section of Cycling Weekly, something that has never been and will never be repeated.
In June I turned 16 which meant I would have moved up to Junior category and done races of 25 miles against 18-year-olds. Given that I was being slaughtered by 15-year-olds over 10 miles, this wouldn’t have been worth it. On top of this, we moved house down to Sussex where there was no equivalent of Eastway. So that was that: I didn’t do another crit again for 20 years.
Before we moved house I also got my first taste of time trials. There were no tri-bars in those days (they were only used in triathlons) and most people just rode on normal road bikes (though the top guys had low-profile bikes and disc wheels). I don’t think anyone wore helmets either – pretty much nobody wore a helmet to cycle at that time. If you were doing a road race you usually had a token effort, a so-called ‘hair net’ thing which was basically just leather straps – only a very small minority had something that looked like our modern helmets instead, but outside of that I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone wearing a helmet. My first time trial was a 10-mile effort on the A12 to and from Mountnessing. Unsurprisingly, races are banned on this stretch of road now – even then it was like a motorway. My dad drove me there, saw what I would be racing on and insisted I wore the ‘hair net’ (which, frankly, wouldn’t have been much help if a vehicle hit me at 70mph). I did it in 29:00, which I was pretty pleased with as I’d never managed to go over 20mph in any of my training rides up to that point. I also did the midweek Bishops Stortford club 10s on a course between Hatfield Heath and White Roding – despite the dodgy turn (practically a U-turn) and the sapping climb about a mile from the finish, I managed to get my PB down to 28:42.
Just before we left Essex forever, I got a pair of custom-built Campag wheels for my 16th birthday. I joined Central Sussex CC and immediately put the new wheels into action doing their club time trials on dual carriageways outside the town of Horsham. Obviously first time out I didn’t know the roads at all and there weren’t any marshals – annoyingly I took a wrong turn when I was on track for a PB and ended up riding 12 miles before I got to the finish line. But I came back four more times and finished the season with a new PB of 28:00 (which I was furious about because I made it 27:59).
While this was going on I finally got to see my first Tour de France on TV. The 1989 Tour was an absolute classic, from Pedro Delgado missing his slot for the prologue and losing minutes on the very first day, the epic battle between Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon through the moutains, Robert Millar breaking away with Delgado and Mottet and beating them up Superbagneres, and of course the final day time-trial where Lemond (with his newfangled tri-bars) snatched victory from Fignon by just 8 seconds. I was actually gutted for Fignon, but I think I was in a very small minority in this country. The Channel 4 show was a long way from the fantastic job that Gary Imlach, Ned Boulting and Chris Boardman do now for ITV: just 30 minutes of highlights with commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen that sounded like it had come down a telephone and the hairy-handed Richard Keys (later of Sky Sports Football) as a fairly clueless anchorman back in the studio. The one thing that was better than now was the theme tune:
I got to see some of the stars of the Tour up close in real life when I went to watch the final stage of the Tour of Britain later that summer (which was a crit around Whitehall). Robert Millar won the overall that day. There was no separation between the fans and the teams so my brother went and grabbed loads of autographs (including, bizarrely, that of Richard Keys).
My other big chance to see the stars was the following summer. For a few years Britain hosted a ‘classic’ race in the summer called the Wincanton Classic. In 1989 it was based in Newcastle, but in 1990 they moved it to Sussex. I rode down to Ditchling Beacon (just 15 miles from where we now lived) and had the fantastic experience of sprinting up the top of the climb over names like ‘Millar’ and ‘Kelly’ chalked on the road and surrounded by hundreds of spectators.That high was shortlived – I turned around at the top and started freewheeling back down to join my friends at their vantage point, nearly shot past them and slammed the brakes on, then toppled over sideways and become stuck lying against the steep banking with my feet unable to unclip from the pedals while dozens of people laughed at me until somebody finally rescued me. We saw the peloton make easy work of the Beacon (when interviewed after the race, Robert Millar dismissively said “What hill?”) as they did several loops, then we rode down into Brighton to watch the finish on Madeira Drive right on the seafront in brilliant sunshine (Gianni Bugno won, if anyone was wondering).
After moving to Sussex I rapidly had to learn how to climb as Ditchling Beacon was far from the only hill around. We lived in The Weald which was hilly enough in its own right (if you’ve ever ridden down to Brighton, you’ve probably gone down some of my old training roads around Warninglid, Handcross, Balcombe and Ardingly), but we were also within easy reach of both the North Downs and the South Downs. The worst of the latter for me was not Ditchling Beacon, but Steyning Bostal. You’ll find it described in Simon Warren’s 100 climbs book (climb #21), but the version he uses (which is also the version used for hill climbs every October) is actually the easier one with a nice stretch of flat between the two ramps. If you’re looking for a challenge, start on Newham Lane instead of the Bostal Road – not only is there no flat if you go this way, but you have to make a right turn while climbing a 17% gradient (just pray there is no traffic coming).
My new club was smaller and only had one group for the winter training club runs so I was thrown in at the deep end with the strongest guys. To make matters worse, the club coach (who was a 1st cat road racer) insisted that I could only use my small chainring during the winter months (to help me get used to riding at a high cadence). This might have made some sense if I was intending to do road races (which I wasn’t) and if I was on a racing bike with high gears instead of a touring bike. I was left spinning like a lunatic. I only managed two of their 60-mile training rides – one went up Leith Hill, the other somewhere on the South Downs near Arundel (I had no idea where I was), both of which left me utterly destroyed and demotivated. Then fate intervened: my Saturday job at Fads (‘The paint and paper people!’) suddenly turned into a Sunday job which gave me a face-saving excuse for not being on the club runs. Even better than that, no other town centre shops were open on a Sunday in those days (I’m not even sure if it was legal for my shop to open), so hours could pass without a single customer coming in: I got paid time and a half to basically do my A-level homework on the counter.
At the start of 1990 I finally got a bike (or frame and components to go with my Campag wheels) that could be described as a racing bike, a black and white MBK with Colombus steel tubing, indexed gears (obviously still on the downtube) and concealed brake cables. Combined with the Look clipless pedals I had got for Christmas, and the special sunglasses I bought, I felt I really looked the part at last. The only thing spoiling the look (from my perspective) was the helmet that my parents were now insisting I wore. These were just appearing on the scene, but were still very much a minority thing and I just couldn’t see the point myself. Nowadays almost everyone wears them and we take them for granted, but at the time I thought it made me look like an alien. It wasn’t very sophisticated either – it was literally a lump of polystyrene with a detachable lycra cover and a strap underneath.
Over the 1990 season I reached a level of fitness I wouldn’t see again for nearly 20 years. I was out all the time training on our local circuits trying to outsprint my brother or club mates to the tops of the hills and the village signs. I went on two more touring holidays with rides of 70-80 miles (at that time my furthest ever): one around Suffolk and Norfolk at Easter and one heading in a big C-shape from Harlow-Oxford-Overton-Southampton-Hindhead (the Devil’s Punchbowl)-home. On the latter of these we tried to get a ‘moody’ photo of the barbed wire security fences around the Greenham Common air base (scene of the protests in the early 80s). The security guard saw us, satisfied himself that we weren’t peace protestors and then invited us in to pose for a photo where he pretended to arrest me.
I did lots of time trials – in the summer months I was sometimes doing three a week, with Central Sussex club 10s on Tuesdays, Crawley Wheelers club 10s on Thursdays and then an open event (usually on the A24) at the weekend. I got my 10 PB down to 27:15 and tried a few 25s with a PB of 1:12:57.
And then….I lost interest. I had bought an electric guitar and wanted to be in a group. As the season finished in the autumn of 1990 I started going to more and more gigs in London. I grew my hair long. I wasn’t remotely tempted to get out training through the winter. So, I hit the start of the 1991 season with practically nothing in my legs and a misplaced belief that this didn’t really matter as I had some kind of magical natural fitness. I entered a 25-mile time trial on the A27 somewhere out between Worthing and Chichester. The weather wasn’t great, but it was the same for everyone and nobody else seemed to be affected like me. As I went round I looked in horror at my average speed: at my very best in a 10 I would be looking for 22mph, for a 25 more like 20.5mph. I soon realised 20mph was going to be impossible and hoped that 19mph could still be considered respectable in the circumstances. But that slipped away and then so did the chance of even hitting 18mph. In disgust, I didn’t write down my time or keep the results that were posted to me so I am afraid it is lost to history, but I remember it was bad. Very bad. Far worse than anything I had done before, I might even have come dead last.
I quit racing on the spot. I didn’t want to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning any more to go to a start line in the middle of nowhere, didn’t want to force myself out in all weathers to train and train and train. I didn’t feel that I looked right any more: my long hair was poking out from under my alien helmet, my legs looked very hairy compared to the others and there was no way 17-year-old me was going to shave them, and I had got so short-sighted I had to wear my round John Lennon-style glasses instead of my shades. My enthusiasm for cycling ebbed away and most weeks I couldn’t even be bothered to ride at all.
There was one final hurrah when my friend and I went on one final cycling tour in July 1991, ending up in the Peak District again, but this time via a zigzagging longer route. On the final day we went up Winnats Pass – at least that’s what the route was, but I can’t remember anything about it. I rode up there again in 2014 and it was absolutely murderous – 25% in places and my heart rate hit the highest ever recorded while I ground up at about 6mph barely managing to keep the pedals turning. I simply refuse to believe I could have ridden up there wearing trainers and with full panniers – we must have walked.
Anyway, almost as soon as that holiday was over I was off again, Interrailing around Europe, and then off to university without my bikes. When I came back home the following summer my dad tempted me out for a training ride (he was now doing triathlons). He dropped me within a couple of miles – oh, the humiliation – and I turned around and went straight back home. That was it, I’d had enough. There was no way I was ever going to get involved in such a stupid masochistic sport ever again. Sixteen years passed before I changed my mind.